Orbital Matters

Saturn Smith
Editor’s Pick
APRIL 22, 2011 5:49PM

Mortenson's Money Troubles Should Be No Surprise

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broken tea cup
Flickr: Nanon | CC License

The reports that parts of Greg Mortenson's co-written autobiographical story, Three Cups of Tea, have been condensed for effect, embellished, or flat-out made up are both saddening and not particularly surprising. Reports that Mortensen has been misusing his charity's money are even less surprising, I think, to anyone who's actually read that book or paid attention to Greg Mortenson in the past several years.

I read the book not long after it came out in paperback and thought it was an interesting adventure and certainly an inspiring idea. The picture I got of Mortenson throughout, though, was not of a master organizer or a particularly astute businessman, but of a guy who had an idea and then sort of haphazardly stumbled into making it happen -- much like he did (or, it turns out, didn't) stumble into the Afghan village where he built his first school. Throughout the book, his co-author seemed surprised (and often delighted) to find that Mortensen was succeeding despite any particularly well-fleshed out plan. His entire charity seemed to be based on the idea of, If we show up with money and good intentions, we can make things happen! It is the Field of Dreams version of American charity abroad.

The book itself is full of examples of how unwise this idea was. Not only does Mortenson run into logistical difficulties -- how to get supplies to the villages, how to get himself to the villages -- he often runs into cultural problems, as well. These last get more attention in the book, or at least in its discussions, because that's the interesting side of this story to an American audience. How did this guy go "over there" and convince people to educate girls like we do "over here"?

While those stories of Mortenson's cultural breakthroughs will now get a lot of justified scrutiny, the part of the book that should have stood out from the get-go is that this is not a man who should be trusted with large amounts of money or organizational responsibility. I'm not saying he's a thief; I'm saying he's disorganized. The book is full of examples of Mortenson barely making a deadline, handling money and travel haphazardly, and stumbling into scenes of personal danger. These aren't just in that now-questioned book. Look at this rather telling article from Outside magazine, from 2008. It starts with the reporter following Mortenson and a friend at a bank, where they've just picked up $100,000 in cash and stuffed it into a bread bag for transport. Then they stuff the cash -- money meant to pay teachers' salaries -- into their vests as they hurtle through town, about to miss their flight.

"You know, some people say that we're just totally winging things over here in this part of the world, but that's not really fair," the American [Mortenson] remarks, somewhat defensively, as he shuffles toward the gate, where it is now being announced that the flight has been delayed for three hours.

Before completing the arc of an argument whose abundant illogic has escaped his notice, he pats his pockets to make sure he hasn't dropped a stray wad of cash that will cover the annual salaries of 20 schoolteachers working in the mountains of northern Afghanistan.

"It's true, of course, that back in the early days we may have been flying by the seat of our pants a bit. But, believe me, we are much more organized now."

If you're "much more organized now," and yet your mode of massive cash transport is to shove it into your combat vest and nearly miss your flight... what was it like before? His entire organization was a seat-of-the-pants operation, and this was well documented in that now-questioned book -- in part, I think, because Mortenson and his followers were proud of that fact. Even that beautiful, fake opening story about stumbling into a village and having his life saved reeks of a kind of snap decision ethos that permeates the entire book. The dude quits his job to fly to Afghanistan out of a belief that he is the best person available to help build schools. There's egotism there that can't really be beat -- and that anyone should have seen would grow like crabgrass under the sunlight of celebrity.

There's something quintessentially American about believing that a small, well-meaning organization of amateurs can successfully "cut out the middle man" and solve big problems through hard work and luck. This is almost never true. The management of a charitable organization requires exactly that: management. It's a business, and it requires, if anything, more responsible money management than your typical for-profit enterprise. It's not at all shocking that Greg Mortenson fell into the typical traps of celebrity-over-charity. What's stunning is that, time and time again, people believe that this charity, this cause, this celebrity, will do better.

Charitable work is not romantic and it isn't easy. It takes someone to sit in an office and manage accounts. It takes some very unsexy details, like filing correct papers with the IRS. Those steps are necessary to protect not just the folks who give their money, but also the folks who receive it. In Mortenson's case, there were teachers in Afghanistan and Pakistan who counted on him to provide a consistent salary, and teachers in America who counted on him to provide an accurate accounting of how he spent the money raised in the Pennies for Peace program. I would venture to say he's let both sides down.

Michelle Goldberg at The Daily Beast writes that the revelation of Mortenson's bad management and (and bad writing) may harm the overall effort of worthy charities to raise money. She quotes Nicholas Kristof: "It's probably true that advocates sometimes exaggerate how easy it is to help. But I worry that the latest round of sour news will leave people thinking it's almost impossible to help."

You know, it actually is almost impossible to help, if your goal in helping is to make certain you're getting "the most for your money." It's also very difficult for anyone who hasn't made a career of it to give money to small organizations with any certainty that their contribution does more good than harm. This is, in part, because anyone can set up a charity. That's a good thing, usually. The problem is, well, anyone can set up a charity, and good intentions often pave the road to private chartered jets and a belief that your speaking engagements really do help the impoverished girls of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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Wise observations all. r
Good analysis, Saturn. Another key element you just touch on: effective help involves the people you're helping. Like good management, it doesn't dictate or do things for the other people but instead facilitates their doing things for themselves. That way it fits the situation (culture, people, resources, etc.), it's owned by those who are involved (rather than passively accepted or even resisted), it actually solves the problems the people in question perceive they have (not those that outsiders impose on them), and it's sustainable after the outside "helpers" leave.
If the reports are true then it appears that he may believing not just exaggerating; some of them are just too extreme and he should have known they would come out eventually which makes me wonder why he did it at all.

However the idea is still good and those that are better organized and more sincere should receive more support with modest but reasonable scrutiny.
Nelle, I agree completely that actual help involves the people that are being helped, without dictating the path that must be taken. Very good point!
Good article Saturn. I've always been skeptical about do-gooders who insist on setting up their own charities. There are plenty of established ones with long track records of worthy endeavors and to be effective it's usually better to go through them. Imagine a host country already dealing with the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Greenpeace, and many others now having to deal with some new outfit where the folks running it have to learn the international charity ropes anew. It's too much to deal with plus there are inevitable overlaps and working at cross-purpose.
Good post (as usual!)
Lately the US Army has been using his methods and having soldiers read his books - what sort of response has been coming from the military now that this disturbing news has broken?
Please look at the timeline here. Greg M. seems very much to be an "accidental celebrity"... He was doing this work before 9/11. The book WAS NOT successful when it first came out. It sat there for years in hardcover. After we went to war, THEN a lot of attention was focused on this area and this story. The man/publishers hired a co-author to actually write the book. I assume GM would take his advice on condensing and streamlining the story. Too bad Krakauer saw an opportunity years later to garner some publicity and "save us all" from this "elaborate scam" - geez - we're all safe now!? DEFINITELY look into those financials - no excuses there....but they way this was woven together and roared out on the Internet has completely destroyed something hopeful.
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